Inside the News: Colorado’s Indie Journalists Keep Local Legacy Media in the Mix

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

For the past few years, a movement has been spreading in Colorado. In multiple cities and towns, journalists have left local legacy news outlets to start one-person newsrooms of their own.

We’ve seen it in places like BoulderGreeley, and Estes Park — and in broader regions like the Yampa Valley and in Northern Colorado. In each of these areas exist online news outlets — newsletters, digital sites, podcasts, or all of the above — that are run by reporters who used to work for the local newspaper.

Now, they’re part of a growing network of independent digitally focused local news organizations blooming across the United States and Canada.

In Colorado, while these local news entrepreneurs are no doubt competing for an audience with their former mainstream media publications, they are also notably open to partnering with them, sharing content, or otherwise keeping the local MSM in their freelance portfolios.

Consider Shay Castle, who five years ago left the Boulder Daily Camera to launch her own site Boulder Beat. Just last week she marked her return to local print media when she announced that she’ll become the new editor of Boulder Weekly. There, she’s thinking about somehow incorporating her Boulder Beat brand into the print newspaper.

Not far away in Northern Colorado, Kelly Ragan left The Greeley Tribune and Fort Collins Coloradoan a few years ago to launch The NoCo Optimist. But now, “I have a content sharing agreement with the Greeley Tribune and do some coordinated coverage with them at times,” she said over email this week. Stories have ranged from an examination of a plan for downtown to coverage of city council.

Nearby, Trenton Sperry, who also worked for the Greeley Tribune (and currently works for The Fence Post agricultural publication), started the Greeley Gadfly on Substack earlier this year.

“I’ve made it clear to the Greeley Tribune that they can use my stories whenever they want, and that they’re free to edit them down as they see fit,” he said via email this week. “I think generally my language in the newsletter is a bit too harsh or black-and-white for their taste, and fair enough. It doesn’t bother me when they tone down the editorializing; that’s their job.”

That said, the Tribune has run his reporting with his name and The Greeley Gadfly as the byline, on stories ranging from a secret potential recycling and waste plant project to affordable housing.

“Additionally, if there’s a story I know they will want to report on but notice they haven’t yet, I’m always quick to alert the reporters and editors to any tips,” Sperry said. “I just don’t think local journalism can afford the mentality of working to be the first to get something anymore. I would rather important things be covered completely and well.”

Meanwhile, in Estes Park, one might have thought Jason Van Tatenhove permanently torched a bridge with his former publication, the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, when he started the Colorado Switchblade news site and podcast on Substack a few years ago. He took some candid parting shots at his former employer for the low wages he was earning and no family healthcare benefits despite his work to help boost the paper’s online presence.

But earlier this fall, when he learned there was someone in the community working around young people who might pose a risk to minors, he took the information to the Trail-Gazette, which ran with the story.

“I did all the research and I just handed it to ‘em, and I was like ‘Look, let’s bury the axe because the community needs to know about this’,” Van Tatenhove said over Zoom this week. He added that he set some hard feelings aside because the local newspaper still has a larger reach, and “we just gotta figure our shit out and come together to get the word out in the right ways.” He also said he was considering freelancing for the paper again if the terms and conditions were right.

In Colorado Springs, after longtime food-and-drink editor Matthew Schniper was laid off earlier this year by The Indy alt-weekly, he created the culinary-focused Side Dish with Schniper on Substack. He didn’t flip the bird to his old employer; instead, he sells versions of his independent work to The Indy on a freelance basis.

Just last week, a photo of Schniper appeared on the cover of his former publication for the first time ever — even though he had served in almost every editorial role at the newspaper for much of his career. (The Indy had published a cover story he wrote about dining at IKEA that he had also published at Side Dish.)

To be sure, such a model hasn’t seemed to work everywhere. At least not yet.

This spring in Steamboat Springs, reporter Dylan Anderson launched the Yampa Valley Bugle after leaving the Steamboat Pilot when the paper sold to a new owner. Anderson described turnover and retrenchment and difficulty in taking on larger, more in-depth reporting projects as a reason for leaving to start something new.

Half a year later, he says while he hasn’t shared content or partnered with local in-market outlets, he is open to it. He said he has even offered, but has been rebuffed.

“It would only be a benefit for The Bugle and the community in general,” Anderson said via email this week. “I have about 1,300 subscribers, and both the Pilot and radio station certainly have a larger audience and name recognition. In my mind, not only would it give their audiences access to more news coverage of the community from The Bugle, but it would raise awareness for what I am doing too.”

In a way, the above developments fit in with a broader orthodoxy of collaboration in Colorado that has taken root in recent years. And they highlight a more networked approach to local news production and delivery that sets ego and competition aside in service to the public. But the situation also underscores something else: the relatively high hurdles to financial sustainability as a one-person newsroom.

David O. Williams, who started the independent Real Vail site in 2007 and relied on real-estate advertising until the housing bubble burst, has long kept local traditional news organizations in the mix as part of his work.

“I had run my course with all the newspaper wars here and I was at a point where I was like ‘how can I stay?’” he said over the phone this week. “Freelance became a real part of that, and Real Vail gave me a place to then park a lot of that freelance and try to monetize it after it had run in any publication first and I had the rights to re-run it.”

Real Vail also has its own revenue stream — Williams said it took him longer than it should’ve to add a donate button to the site — but lately he’s been scrambling to increase and diversify his freelance portfolio after losing a major Real Vail funder and seeing some outlets he used to write for cut back during the pandemic.

Like other indie journalists who left legacy papers to set out on their own in the same community, Williams has sometimes criticized the media institutions where he also publishes his work — over certain coverage, a newspaper’s ownership, or transparency issues. Despite such scrutiny, Vail Daily, owned by Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia, is publishing Williams’ new book Rod Slifer & the Spirit of Vail.

“I think we need alternatives, and I think those alternatives can work hand-in-hand with the MSM,” Williams said about Colorado’s local news entrepreneurs. He added: “I think these local content sharing deals are the future.”

The latest Colorado journalist on Substack: ‘I have been laid off’

This week, Nick Raven reached a particular stage in his journalism career: laid off from the same paper for the second time in the course of a year.

The first time was in March when The Indy alternative weekly in Colorado Springs found a $300,000 accounting error that led the paper to lay off half of its staff.

Eight months later, after the paper launched a fundraising campaign, brought on a new publisher, and more, Raven announced he had once again caught the spinning blade of budget cuts.

His comments came on Substack, the platform where he this week set up a newsletter called The Raven Express.

“Through no fault of my own, again, I have been laid off from my arts and entertainment-slash-culture reporter position at the Colorado Springs Indy, a hyperlocal alt-weekly print publication,” he wrote in his first post headlined “I am not my job.”

The rest of the piece is brutal, and chronicles the home economics of a local newspaper job, losing that job, navigating the state’s unemployment system, and searching for new employment in the current economy.

Here’s an excerpt:

This year I have made my living two ways: my day-time job at the Indy and through some algorithmic luck on YouTube where I make hours-long essays about video games. These are two exclusively distinct crowds. My Colorado Springs neighbors do not give a shit about what I think about the Thief games and my international YouTube audience does not give a shit about the latest gallery exhibit in Downtown Colorado Springs. I cannot leverage what meager clout I have with either to assist the other. It’s great.

My knee-jerk reaction the day before I was laid off was, “well, gee, I could start some sort of weekly online thing where I just type words and you read them and hopefully you enjoy this experience enough that you send me money.” Namely, those words would focus on the kind of journalism I was doing full-time. What you’re reading now is the first fruit of that effort.

But as I gaze around at the local journalism scene — a scene I was lucky to stumble into myself, having worked exclusively in warehouses, call centers and other warehouses to that point — is how fucking frail it is. You could start a publication that fed exclusively on the stream of dead and dying publications around the country being rendered inoperable by high operating costs and shifting media trends.

Read the whole thing at the link above.

Colorado Alden journalist: A new ‘tiered’ paywall system from ‘overlords’

Mitchell Byars, a journalist for the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper, which is financially controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, told readers this week about some changes to the paper’s paywall regime.

“Our overlords have introduced a three-tiered article payment system,” he posted to the X platform formerly known as Twitter. “There are free articles, there are articles that you can view as part of your allotment of free reads before you hit the paywall, and there are articles that you must subscribe to view.”

Byars expanded on the details:

We’ve basically been given a quota of articles that should be “subscriber only.” These are supposed to be enterprise articles that do not impact immediate public safety and cannot be found elsewhere. They are NOT supposed to include election content…

But in trying to get more “subscriber only” content and to *supposedly* make our lives easier, the company introduced some sort of algorithm that is automatically making some content “subscriber only” even after we have marked it as free or metered…

So if you see an article, particularly election coverage, that you think is erroneously marked “subscriber only,” please let me know. We’re trying to get this fixed, and we appreciate your patience and understanding.

“Now, to be very clear,” he concluded, “election coverage is still behind a paywall. But you should be able to view the articles if you have free reads left on your monthly allowance.”

Ex-Gazette owner’s Maverick Observer site ‘on hiatus’ w/ a founder who sounds pretty down

Three years ago, Tim Hoiles, a former owner of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, was frustrated by what he saw as a city not living up to its potential and a local media environment that was too boosterish of the status quo.

So he founded a digital local news and commentary site called The Maverick Observer, and administered some tough love.

Personally, I can’t say I’ve followed the site too closely since, but some of its political cartoons did cross my radar during the latest mayoral campaign. The ‘toons mercifully lanced outgoing Mayor John Suthers, his heir apparent Wayne Williams and their aligned city staff, and depicted a developer shadow government.

Following the April city election, that crowd is out of power. And the Observer is taking a break — going on “a brief hiatus through the end of the year.”

But Hoiles didn’t seem like he was taking any victory laps in a farewell message to readers.

“The assault on individual freedoms has never ever been this egregious unless you were a prisoner of war, black, American Indian, or Japanese American during World War II,” he wrote last month. In all candor, it is both disheartening and ominous beyond compare.”

Hoiles went on:

I need to find a more meaningful way to get the attention of the residents of Colorado Springs to engage the elected officials and the bureaucrats in a way that will hold them accountable to the citizens they were elected to represent.

“During our time of inner reflection and reevaluation, we will continue to monitor our elected officials and city staff,” he wrote. “I ask all citizens to stay engaged in our community and look for ways to better their neighborhoods for themselves and others.”

Rio Blanco Herald Times plight goes national

Following the lead item in this newsletter’s Oct. 27 edition about the Rio Blanco Herald Times, Mike Blinder, publisher of Editor & Publisher magazine, took interest.

This week, the West Slope newspaper’s publisher, Niki Turner, appeared for a video interview with Blinder for his show “E&P Reports.” Watch it below:

More Colorado media odds & ends

🌹 Tess Furey, who was with the Sentinel newspaper in Grand Junction “as a columnist and copy editor from 2010 until earlier this year,” died Oct. 31, the newspaper reported. She spent “nearly a year as the news editor for The Boulder Camera before moving to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in 1996” where she “spent nearly 13 years at the Rocky as a copy editor, the editorial page designer and wire editor, responsible for state, national and world news and the supervision of a department.” Furey was “married for 26 years to Charles Ashby, The Daily Sentinel’s political and legislative reporter.”

💰 Colorado newsrooms have until Nov. 27 to apply for grants to advance equity in their work. A quarter of a million dollars will flow to nonprofit and for-profit Colorado news organizations from the initiative by Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter. The amount per project typically ranges between $5,000 and $25,000. Don’t sleep on these. Apply here before the deadline.

✂ Colorado-based Dish Network, “the satellite TV company and parent of Boost Mobile and Sling TV,” is cutting “about 10% of its local workforce,” Greg Avery reported for the Denver Business Journal.

📡 A recent report from the Center for Community News at the University of Vermont looks at the relationship between public radio stations and universities. The center highlighted this out of Colorado: “For example, the University of Colorado Boulder has offered a special projects course created by the Boulder Reporting [Lab] and the university’s Center for Environmental Journalism. For this course, students collaborated with KUNC, the public radio station in northern Colorado, and The Conversation to report on the Marshall Fire’s health impacts during the aftermath.”

💸 You might remember when this newsletter followed a Colorado newspaper’s sports-betting advice for a week (and lost money). With the rise of lucrative online sports betting in many states, Sarah Scire at NiemanLab recently asked several news outlets about whether their sportswriters could bet on the sports they cover. You might be surprised at how many didn’t answer or simply say no.

🗣 “Woodland Park educators have won their fight to strike down what they argued was an unconstitutional school district policy that prohibited them from speaking to journalists or on social media about district matters, according to the local teacher’s union,” Jenny Brundin reported for Colorado Public Radio. The union said the federal court-mediated agreement to replace the policy was reached Tuesday.”

🚫 Hannah Metzger wrote in Westword this week about how the U.S. Supreme Court could reverse a Colorado law that allows elected officials to block people on their personal social media accounts.

🧩 “If search and social are both in the most vulnerable/broken place in years if not ever, what are you doing to make sure your reputation for factual, useful information is strong enough that people will go directly to you on purpose?” asked Dave Burdick of Colorado Public Radio on LinkedIn. “This is just about the most urgent time I can think of for journalists to demonstrate their presence and expertise, and their responsiveness and service to their communities — and really earn those lasting relationships.”

❌ In last week’s newsletter I misspelled Gavin Dahl’s last name. I also conflated a Denver Urban Spectrum story with one from MSU’s Met Media.

📺 Nina Joss profiled Denver7 news anchor Anne Trujillo for Colorado Community Media as Trujillo retires from the station next week.

💉 The news media has developed an almost co-dependent relationship with Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert and “deserve some culpability for our outrageous politics,” Fort Lewis College political science professor Paul DeBell told the Denver Post. “Sensational coverage gets more attention, and that provides incentives for outrageous statements and behavior in order to gain political prominence and get ahead in electoral contests.”

🗳️ A Colorado Sun analysis found roughly two thirds of union-backed school board candidates won races across Colorado in Tuesday’s elections. One place they didn’t win was in Colorado Springs. There, the conservative slate prevailed, meaning the union-endorsed slate, which included former local TV journalist Kate Singh, didn’t make it.

📻 “Conservative radio host Deborah Flora has launched a campaign for Rep. Ken Buck’s soon-to-be vacant House seat in eastern Colorado,” Peter Jonas wrote for the Colorado Times Recorder.

🎥 “Colorado Springs-based Youth Documentary Academy is celebrating its 10th anniversary,” Kelly Hayes reported for The Gazette. “The celebration at Colorado College will kick off with a gala reception, followed by the premiere of eight new films.”

💥 I have to say I just loved that my favorite coverage of the school board race on my local ballot this Tuesday came from a high school student newspaper in the district.

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.